Looper contains elements of time-traveling science fiction, neo-noir, and pained romance, but, as a chase film, nothing is as complicated as it seems. Yes, there is time travel. There’s also a mob conspiracy, copious drug usage, and the perception and memories of the people involved in these rackets are framed with fuzzy edges, but the elements that play into Looper and the characters involve are there to ground the viewer in an unbelievably plausible, fully-realized United States of America, which, in 2044, is almost irreparably broken—a patchwork quilt of vagrant gangs, men and women with retrograde telekinetic powers, and mafia-run cities ruled by weathered men from the future. If certain aspects of Rian Johnson‘s film seem familiar, it’s because Looper wants to ease the viewer into a film that’s altogether different than anything that’s come before.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, a man hired to take care of mafia hits that come from the future. Though time travel hasn’t been invented in 2044, in 2072 it’s illegal and used as a means to bury bodies. The target is captured and tied, has a bag placed on his head, and is zapped back in time. Once he appears in the past, the looper shoots him, receives his payment, and disposes of the body. When the mafia runs out of uses for a looper, they send the aged version back for the young man to kill. Most loopers are surprisingly fine with this: having been paid a bounty of silver and gold for their work, they’re free to go about lives of reckless hedonism. Sometimes, a future self isn’t quite ready to die. This, of course, presents problems.
Joe (Bruce Willis) is an eventuality, a man from the future who is the result of a lifetime of bad choices and the grace of a woman he meets after hitting rock bottom. Where most of these eventualities seem resigned to the termination of their contract, Old Joe is different because his wife is a casualty. Unseen in this future is a mysterious mafioso known only as “The Rainmaker,” who, as legend has it, took control of the mob by himself. Why he’s taken to closing extant looper contracts is unknown, but Joe has some crucial information about The Rainmaker’s past: as a boy, he lived around the area where he worked as a young man.
Though its plot bears some similarity to The Terminator, nobody in Looper is a cold-blooded killing machine. Blood-stained as it is, Johnson’s film doesn’t place an emphasis on gore, and its characters’ decisions are tinged with regret. The focus here is on destiny, if such a thing exists and if it can be changed. In an early sequence, Johnson teases that yes, the events of the future can be altered by those with knowledge of the past, but despite that scene’s grotesquery, the time travel paradox is mostly backgrounded. It’s an odd comparison, but Looper is so compelling for the same reason Safety Not Guaranteed was: faith in its narrative and refusal to bow to its central gimmick. Personal taste will dictate whether or not you’re satisfied with the way Looper plays with genre conventions, but Johnson is a director who regularly subverts expectation, trading mostly in well-drawn characters and good dialog.
That’s true here, as the world Looper inhabits is replete with characters outside of the Joe/Old Joe binary, whose fates are inextricably linked to the actions of those two men. The most important such people are Sara (Emily Blunt) and Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who live in the farmhouse that’s circled on Old Joe’s map. Sara is Cid’s mother, and Cid, Old Joe suspects, is one of three children who turn out to be The Rainmaker. Though the movie slows down considerably when the present’s Joe decides to camp out at the farmhouse and wait for his future self, it allows the movie to pause and consider its three main characters: the old man who’d do anything to save his wife, the mother who would do anything to save her child, and the young man with a murky sense of his destiny.
At the fringes, Looper‘s mob elements threaten to un-do Joe before he or his future self can do anything to prevent or protect what’s coming. They’re led by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man who’s been sent back in time specifically to take charge of the loopers. He’s kind of a surrogate father to that lot, though he’s very clearly bored in his role (the film notes that he took over organized crime in Kansas City in his spare time), sighing his way through field reports,his lackeys assurances that they’ll catch Joe, and torture because, as he says, he’s from the future. If there’s a point of contention to be had with the logistics of Looper, Abe is it. But Daniels—as part of a supporting cast that includes Piper Perabo as a hooker with connections to Joe and Paul Dano as a looper who can’t pull the trigger on himself—is so slick, so convincing in the role that you take Abe at “I’m from the future” and stop asking questions.
“Slick” and “convincing” are two words that best sum Looper, and few science fiction movies emerge as tightly conceptualized as this. There’s The Matrix and there’s Blade Runner, and, watching Looper, I felt pangs of admiration for Rian Johnson’s film much the same way I did when I first saw those two fore-bearers. This is sci-fi at its most entertaining and most assured. In the coming weeks, there will be a plethora of posts picking apart how its time travel works or doesn’t, how its inconsistencies boggle the mind or don’t, how a repeat viewing or two will clear away confusion or won’t. Right now, none of that matters. Genre filmmaking, for all the talk of its resurgence, has grown unbelievably stagnant. Looper represents a vital breath of fresh air, something beyond caped crusaders and extraterrestrial invasions. In its otherness, Looper is worthy of merit. It opens a door to something new. Thrillingly, when the film ends, that door is still open.
Rating: Looper. Directed by Rian Johnson. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Joe), Bruce Willis (Old Joe), Emily Blunt (Sara), Paul Dano (Seth), Piper Perabo (Suzie), Pierce Gagnon (Cid), and Jeff Daniels (Abe). Released September 28, 2012 by FilmDistrict.